Writing Detective Butler 2
This month I focused on writing Detective Butler 2. First of all, I am happy to say that we made more progress on it now than any other month last year. Not only did my experience from the monthly games get me into a stronger writing habit, but I developed a better understanding of how to actually write a story. In many ways I feel like I got kind of lucky with the first game, simply imitating a story without knowing why any of it worked. So now that I've done my research and formed some good writing habits, I think this game will turn out to be much better.
My goal for the month was to simply create a minimum viable product, a story that can be read entirely from beginning to end. No coding or anything, just plain text files. I had been neglecting the writing for too long during development, and in a narrative-focused game, it's really the most important part. So I forced myself to really think about it, and to figure it all out within the time constraint of a single month. It's a little overkill, because I know a game this large can't possibly be finished within thirty days, but I know that at least aiming for the goal will get me somewhat close to it.
For the previous monthly games, I could somewhat easily predict how long a particular coding task might take. But those predictions are not so easy with written words. What should each character be saying? How should they go about saying it? Was this scene actually necessary for the story, or did I just waste time writing dialogue nobody wants to read? What if there's a logic error caused by this new writing that I need to fix somehow?
The only reliable way to measure my writing ability was purely in Words Per Minute. If I know that my WPM is about 100 (which it is) then if I work for 8 hours per day I could get 100 * 60 * 8 = 48,000 words per day... but that's a little unrealistic. It assumes that my hands will be moving constantly, no eating food, no bathroom breaks, not even time to sit and think about what I might write next. So we can instead assume the worst case, that maybe I can only write at full speed for one hour per day. So that would result in 6,000 words per day, stretched over a 14-day period, I could certainly get close to 100,000 written words.
But again, things were not that simple. I couldn't spend every day of the month on writing Butler. I had other business to take care of, especially on the weekends. I had also decided to work on some improvements to the website during this period, so that I wouldn't have to worry about it later this year. You can already sign up for our mailing list and can preview our improved store page, which I hope will be launching soon.
Even when I had the time to work on Butler, a lot of it was spent fixing some issues with the plot that I hadn't yet fixed already. I wrote out small outlines for each chapter, scene by scene. So I'd go down the list of scenes, write as many words as I needed to make it work, and then move on. No editing, no revisions. That part comes later. I've called these drafts the "second drafts," as the first draft was to simply put the idea down onto paper, and now the second draft is to make it flow from beginning to end. The third and final drafts of each chapter will take into account peer review, fixing spelling/grammer, and adding the interactive sections and any other optional dialogue.
And just to be clear: I've written these drafts far more times than just once or twice... Maybe I'll do another "behind the scenes" thing in DB2 where I list off all the possible ways the story could have gone, but didn't. Another way to think about it is that these chapters have passed the second phase of their development. If they fail to pass the phase then I redo them until they "earn a higher score."
The end result was about what I had predicted. Only halfway there. The first half is pretty much done, aside from writing a third and final draft. The total wordcount for this half, as it stands right now, is about 30,000 words. That's more than 75% of the first game's wordcount. So DB2 is definitely a much longer game.
Once I started on the second half, I realized that I hadn't given nearly as much thought to it as I had the previous chapters. There were a number of loose ends I hadn't yet resolved, some things that didn't quite make sense, and so I spent some time untangling those issues before anything else. All of Butler's deductions need to follow a completely solid chain of logic, but it also needs to be very subtle (even though it's also supposed to be staring you in the face the whole time). Mysteries are hard to write!
So I ended up working backwards. I had to start from the ending and figure out how I wanted to end the story. Only then can I go back and properly foreshadow things. While the first half mostly opened up a lot of questions, the second half needs to focus on delivering the answers (or at the very least, some hints toward the answers). The only way to write such a thing is to know what the answer will be. No more changing it around, it must be set in stone.
Ultimately I had to rearrange some of the chapters to make things work. And a lot of old, scrapped ideas came back in ways I hadn't expected. I learned a lot about character development this way. There was a part in the first chapter in which I "accidentally" developed Butler's character. I didn't plan it out ahead of time, but I had to make Butler leave the area in order to get to the next scene. So he becomes this somewhat socially distant guy, not wanting to be around others too much (it fits with the rest of his personality) but the other characters begin to see it as a fatal flaw. And maybe it is. Maybe we'll see where that takes us in the later chapters.
The outlines for the latter half have been finished, so all that's left is to get to writing them. There just weren't enough days in the month to get it all done. If there's one thing I should've done years ago (other than, say, investing in BitCoin), it would've been taking this approach to writing DB2. It has forced me to work faster and get things done. It's very easy for game developers, myself included, to spend way too long trying to perfect their game, when all they really need to do is get it working and then ship it out. My games last year tried to get my mind into that habit, and I think it has paid off. The scope of DB2 is still larger than those other small games I was working on (and even they took longer than I thought they would) so I'm not surprised at this result. I'll be continuously working to condense the scope of the game into something that will be finished within the year.
During my writing, I paid special attention to a few things. First was pacing. The story had to move quickly, I didn't want to bore the reader like in the first game when Gilligan aimlessly wanders around the ship. No, in this game you get thrust right into the action. You'll get to play as Detective Butler and experience the gameplay from the very start.
Second was suspense. There needs to be tension, otherwise, why care? So I learned to use multiple perspectives to show off different things happening at the same time. The reader experiences suspense when they know something is going to happen that the characters don't. And I also made sure to always escalate the conflict between characters. If they started cooperating too much, I had to throw in some sort of disagreement.
Third was foreshadowing. Everything has to be hinted at, even things that don't pertain to the mystery. Story elements that advance the plot need to be mentioned early on before they ever become relevant. Get stuck writing yourself into a corner? Just write a deus ex machina, then go back and foreshadow it. Now you have a Chekov's Gun!
Fourth was comedy. There must be light to complement the darkness. It's interesting to think how so many great murder mysteries include a good use of humor to brighten the mood. No more angst, Gilligan! If it gets too dark, it stops being fun to read. Butler is here to have fun and lighten the mood. The dynamic duo is a great comedic double-act.
And fifth was meaning. I had to ask myself, "What's the point of it all?" I had to think about what makes Butler so much different from Sherlock Holmes or Phoenix Wright. Why not just read those stories, if you wanted a good murder mystery? Why read this one? What does it have to offer that they don't? What is the significance of the self-contained mysteries compared to the overarching storyline, and why should anyone care about them? Certainly, the answers to these questions tie into the theme that the story will attempt to address. But I'll save that for another time.
Due to the fact that I'm currently on a roll with the writing and there's still plenty of hype for it, I'm going to continue working on DB2 in February as well. My new goal is to have a playable game from start to end. So I'll need to finish writing the second half, and then move on to integrating it all with the game engine. That should be exciting, and I will hopefully be showing off some screenshots and videos by then too.
Look forward to it!